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Zanesville Incident Proves Ohio Needs Stricter Exotic Animal Laws

As an owner of an exotic pet, Nicole Frie understands need for restrictions.

Sunday, Oct. 16 was a dark and stormy night. The power was flickering, the wind was howling, and the lions were prowling.

Wait…the lions were prowling? Sounds like the start of a bad horror novel set in the Sahara, right? But actually, the aforementioned events took place in Zanesville, Ohio (about 50 miles east of Columbus, where I live).

It was around 9 p.m. last Sunday when I saw that a local news station had tweeted the following: ‘Exotic Animals Escape Muskingum County Animal Farm.” My first thought was that one or two animals had escaped from a zoo. The situation turned out to be much more serious: Terry Thompson, a Zanesville resident and the owner of a 73-acre private farm, had released his 56 exotic animals—including lions, Bengal tigers, grizzly bears and cheetahs—before taking his own life.

As tragic as the incident was, it has rightfully raised a lot of discussion about owning exotic animals. Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets. In Ohio, all you need to import a non-domestic animal into the state is an entry permit, a health certificate certifying the animal is free of infectious diseases, a certificate of veterinary inspection, and documentation that the animal was legal in their state or country of origin. However, eight states have no license or permit requirements for the possession of exotic animals, and Ohio is one of them.

Consequently, Ohio is among states with the highest number of injuries and deaths caused by exotic pets. At least nine people have been injured and one person killed in exotic pet related incidents in Ohio in the past six years.

As an exotic animal owner, I can understand why some people are attracted to them: learning about them is enriching; they set one apart from ordinary pet owners and they pose new challenges that some people enjoy taking responsibility for (not to mention they’re excellent conversation starters, though that’s definitely not a good reason to go out and buy an exotic pet).

But there are also obvious downsides. First of all, Boyfriend and I have two sugar gliders—not Bengal tigers. Weighing in at about 5 oz. each, they live in a cage and don’t pose an immediate threat to anyone. We’ve also seen first-hand the ways in which exotic animal owners abuse their ownership. The breeder from which Boyfriend acquired our gliders kept them in an unkempt home with three loud dogs, used them to produce two joeys, and put them up for sale when they got too old and she could no longer make money off of them.

Sadly, there are many other privately owned farms like Thompson’s in Ohio, as well as exotic animal auctions. In Mount Hope, just 80 miles north of Columbus in Amish country, exotic animals are auctioned off once they are no longer cute, fuzzy babies and can’t be used for things like photo opportunities at the county fair. 

To be fair, there are plenty of instances in which exotic animals are adopted for the right reasons and cared for adequately. But in order to ensure that “plenty of instances” becomes “all instances,” stricter laws regarding exotic animal ownership need to be made, for the sake of both the animals and the people around them (imagine being Thompson’s neighbor and having small children).

In the end, it was announced that only six of Thompson’s animals were saved: three leopards, a grizzly bear, and a monkey. Dozens of other animals, including a baboon, mountain lion and endangered Bengal tigers, were killed by officers.

Although killing the animals was necessary in order to protect citizens, it certainly didn’t have to turn out this way. Perhaps if stricter laws were in place, more animal lives—not to mention Thompson’s life—could have been spared.

Anneliese October 24, 2011 at 06:24 PM
I still don't understand how Ohio doesn't have a law against owning such dangerous animals as lions and tigers..
Kara Jenkins October 25, 2011 at 12:33 AM
We need stricter laws, but exotic pets are all going to be lumped together as one. Constrictors including corn snakes, sometimes ferrets, tropical fish, parakeets, rabbits, gerbils, hamsters can all be considered exotic. You know what? Not everyone likes dogs and cats and a lot of people are allergic to furry animals so the people that have reptiles-turtles, snakes, monitors, lizards, bearded dragons will get their animals all taken away. There's a BIG incident and everyone has to act irrational. Make laws, but if you aren't a animal lover or don't understand that dogs and cats aren't the only pets out their then you should have no say in the law. I've owned 17 snakes, bearded dragons, scorpions, hedgehogs, skunks, cats, dogs, rats, and ferrets. Guess what? The only animal I have ever owned that has bitten me was my dog!!!!!!! No you shouldn't have a tiger running loose in your back yard and if you have big animals like that you should be required to have a certain amount of hands on experience, cages/animals need to be taken care of properly and their should be a zero tolerance policy. I'll move somewhere else before I let people tell me what's 'safe and not safe' for me to own.
d taylor November 03, 2011 at 12:07 PM
It"s quite ovious this person had suffered a psycotic break and the real issue would be our mental health system and not exotic animal laws! I beleave i had heard this person had receintly been released from jail, if this was true our correctional institutions should be held accountable for the individuals that are released into the community! This action is no different than if he had taken a gun of any other opertunistic thing at his grasp to cause potential harm to others! Getting on a ban waggon to restrict exotic pets is'nt the salution hear!!
Shaddie May 19, 2012 at 04:55 AM
Being an exotic owner yourself, I am appalled at how you would support such over-reaching laws to restrict exotics in Ohio because of a singular, isolated incident that was the result of one man's mental illness issues. Being an exotic pet owner yourself, I would hope that you would want to protect the rights you currently have to keep your sugar gliders. Those are not legal in all states. Are you glad that you can keep them? Count the days; it's only a matter of time before exotic ownership bans hit your state too - and all because of people such as yourself spread ignorance by claiming that exotic animal keepers are unfit, dispassionate, money-grubbing drones who care nothing for an animal's well-being. The media does a good job of portraying a lot of bad stuff too. The Zanesville incident was not a subject of animal cruelty, unfit conditions, or the dangers of keeping any of the animals involved - it was merely a matter of one person's mental stability. This has nothing to do with keeping exotics. There are thousands of mentally challenged or suicidal people in the world who own dogs, and often times these animals suffer when their owners suddenly die, or go insane. How many dogs have eaten the bodies of their dead masters, trapped alone in the house with a corpse for weeks? Is this a shameful mark of the record of our beloved canis familiaris? No. They're just animals. I fight for my rights to keep what I love. I think you should do the same.

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